Initially, "Cold Brains" was meant for the sequel album to One Foot in the Grave, but when that never happened, Beck rescued it for Mutations. It's always been a relatively simple and pretty folk song, but for the album, it was decorated into one of the finest recordings he's made. Beck himself played all the guitars, harmonica, a little piano, and even some glockenspiel.
Uncharacteristically, the lyrics remained pretty much unchanged from the first known version in June 1996, through until the recorded version in March 1998. The prevailing image in "Cold Brains" is death. A more specific interpretation would be the death of inspiration, writer's block. To a prolific songwriter like Beck, what could be worse?
The first verse begins with an evocative, rhythmic description of his current state of mind: "unmoved, untouched, unglued." He is struggling with creating, his brains are cold, he has "no thoughts, no mind." The next verse goes further in describing his unsuccessful attempts at finding inspiration. Here, he describes inspiration as a "field of green," he longs for it. Unfortunately, he is on the gravel. Even with a "worm of hope," he still fails ("a hangman's rope pulls me one way or the other").
The last verse is the most depressing. All the unsuccessful attempts have ended up quieting the "bird of song," and is most likely a self-reference to the singer himself. Most shocking is the conclusion that "it doesn't matter": to the writer? to fans who will just move on? This is quite the existential question for a creative writer.
When Beck was asked about the bleakness of "Cold Brains" (and most of Mutations), he said he actually found the lyrics to be funny.
I don't know. I think of it as mostly playful, but then I think Leonard Cohen is a humorous song writer. In "Cold Brains" when I say, "The fields of green are obscene and I lay upon the gravel," [sic] there's just this demented auto-erotica that I think is hilarious. It's not meant to necessary bring anybody down or bum anybody out.
And in that sense, he's right. While "Cold Brains" is not a light-hearted song (the images throughout are quite bleak), it is not a bummer or overly depressing about the situation. (Maybe a little.)
Beck explains it this way, "I think there's a certain world-weariness to the record, but I just think of it as being part of the condition of our whole way of living. I don't know anybody who doesn't reach a point of exhaustion on a regular basis. We don't know how to live anymore." On "Cold Brains," he explores what it's like to reach that point.
Beck has played "Cold Brains" live many times, though it has been a number of years since last heard.
1996-1997 - pre-Mutations versions
Beck played "Cold Brains" live a handful of times prior to recording it for Mutations. There are 6 shows we know about, and each one was solo acoustic. The live debut on June 5, 1996 show that the song remained with the much the same lyrics and arrangement over time, just that on record it was filled out with more instruments.
Another early preview of "Cold Brains" ("a delicacy," Beck calls it before he begins) took place on September 1, 1996 in Hoboken, NJ. He improvised in the second verse, when he accidentally started a line from the first verse, realized his mistake and changed it on the spot: "No thoughts / No mind / To rot behind a trail of possibilities." A confident harmonica solo followed the second verse. Beck added a little coda to the end, singing "corroded to the bone" a number of times.
After these two previews, "Cold Brains" vanished as Beck continued on, playing big Odelay concerts.
Then in the fall of 1997, the tour had ended, and Beck was having fun, relaxing, and playing a number of "acoustic" concerts. Two of those shows were the now-famous pair of El Rey shows on November 19 and December 16, 1997. The December show had a dynamic guitar accompaniment with Beck switching back and forth between strumming and picking.
It was the success of these two performances at the end of 1997 which surely led to the inclusion of "Cold Brains" on Mutations, which was recorded just three months later in March 1998.
1998-2000 Mutations and Midnite Vultures tour - band version
After Mutations was recorded, Beck did a short tour in June 1998. He couldn't resist playing a few of his wonderful new songs, though they would not be released until November. On June 10, 1998, after his solo set, he brings his band back out. He can be heard asking, "You guys want to do 'Cold Brains'?" They do.
The live performances for Mutations were limited to a number of radio shows/festivals at the end of 1998, and about thirteen shows on tour in April 1999. "Cold Brains" was played at most all of them, and there were a few great band versions, most notably the one on KCRW on November 24, 1998.
The main leg of the tour was in Japan in April 1999. "Cold Brains" was used to open a number of these, kicking off the new Mutations-heavy setlists.
Band versions continued during 2000, on the Midnite Vultures tours. Beck even regularly used it to open shows, where he'd briefly start the song solo acoustic, and then the band kicked in after the first verse. Here is an example of the Vultures band version:
2002-2003 Sea Change tours
Beck's solo tours of 2002 and 2003 saw regular "Cold Brains." Usually Beck played it alone, though sometimes Smokey Hormel added piano in August 2002 (and sometimes he used Roland the Drum Machine on it). One time Jack White sang the song too!
In between the solo tours of August 2002 and April 2003, Beck toured with the Flaming Lips for a couple of months. At first it always acoustic, opening Beck's solo portion of the show.
Eventually, the song moved into the band section, and he did it with the Flaming Lips backing him. It does not sound very different from how it was done on the Vultures tour, except the Lips do infuse some drama into it in the way it builds, and a more psychedelic guitar feedback squeal. They had a good command of the song. Beck and the Lips also did it together during Beck's 2002 visit to KCRW:
Beck had yet another band during the summer of 2003, and they also regularly played "Cold Brains."
Beck took 2004 off, mostly, but did make a 'surprise' appearance at Coachella. He played in one of the large tents, but by himself. He opened his set with some acoustic folk songs, the first being "Cold Brains."
2005-2006 Guero/Info tours
There are only a handful of "Cold Brains" during the Guero and Info tours of 2005 and 2006 (just 8 that we know about). From what I can tell though, they were all solo acoustic except the night Beck showed up at a White Stripes concert and played it there with them. Here is the version where Beck sang it with the Stripes!
Also one acoustic show was with his band on October 22, 2006, who added quite a bit of percussion behind him. This version (and whole show) is cool, and easily one of my favorites. Strangely, it's basically the last time Beck played the song. You can see it here:
Beck did not play the song on his Modern Guilt tours of 2008-2009. He then took a few years off the road, and in 2011-2013 started doing some short tours. He did not really play "Cold Brains" at those either, but at one acoustic show in May 2013, he tossed it into a short acoustic medley of some of his older songs ("MTV"/"Free Fallin"/"Pay No Mind").
So except this short version tossed into a medley, "Cold Brains" has not been played since 2006.
The liner notes transcribe the second chorus as "we write this song / corroded to the bone." To be honest, I do not hear this couplet in the performance released on Mutations. It sounds to me like he sings "we ride disowned" in each of the three choruses. I could be wrong though, wouldn't be the first time.